Intervening in other countries and covertly supporting allies was in the Bolsheviks’ DNA in 1917. It would take another generation and a second world war for Americans to start playing the same game. Fearful that the Communists would win enough votes to dominate the Italian parliament, the United States intervened to help the anti-Communist Christian Democrats to a landslide victory in that country’s 1948 election. The Truman administration didn’t just pour money into the effort. Foreshadowing the microtargeting of the Facebook era, Shimer recounts how Italian-Americans were encouraged to participate in a huge letter writing campaign. An estimated 10 million messages were sent to relatives back home warning of the dangers of Communism.
America’s successful covert intervention in 1948 became a touchstone for the C.I.A. The Italian example was, in the words of the agency’s official historian, David Robarge, “a template” that would be energetically applied to Cold War elections elsewhere. Meanwhile the Soviets were having some successes in Europe by focusing on individual politicians. But they had little success at influencing American elections. Unlike the C.I.A., the K.G.B. had no feel for how democracies or election campaigns worked.
Once the Cold War ended, the Kremlin and the White House gradually developed divergent views on the utility of interfering in elections. For the United States, covert electoral interference would become, in the words of the C.I.A. veteran Douglas Wise, “a tool of last resort,” whereas Russia not only developed a new taste for it but also a broader skill set. After Russia gobbled up the Crimea in 2014 and President Obama joined Europe in trying to stop the Kremlin’s expansionism, Putin ordered this tool kit to be used against the United Kingdom during the Brexit campaign, and against us.
The book’s concluding section is sobering. The vulnerability of America’s patchwork quilt of 50 separate electoral systems contributed to the Obama administration’s fears of Putin’s “escalation dominance” in 2016, and there is no reason to believe our election infrastructure is any less vulnerable to attack today. In refusing any federal assistance four years ago, Georgia’s secretary of state (now governor) Brian Kemp explained, “They now think our whole system is on the verge of disaster because some Russian’s going to tap into the voting system.”
Some of the same voices are now opposed to mail-in-balloting, the safest way to avoid both the coronavirus and Putin’s hackers. And the Kremlin can be sure there will be no threat of retaliation as long as Donald Trump remains in office.
But beyond the Trumpists, we are all the biggest reason for the continuing vulnerability. American conspiracy thinking is as old as the Republic. Add the disappointments caused by the worst income inequality in a century, a health care system whose inequities are highlighted by the pattern of Covid-19 lethality, and the virulence of bigotries and you have a petri dish for both multidirectional hatred and democratic apathy. The pot the ideologically blinkered Soviets couldn’t figure out how to stir is now being roiled by their pragmatic successors.
The Russian assault on America in 2016 could be considered the original sin that begot the Trump years. On the eve of our national referendum on Trump and Trumpism, this book is nothing less than essential reading.